The political story of the week in the UK is the proposed strike of tanker drivers and the public reaction at the petrol pumps. But for a while, it jostled with the budget backlash triggered by the tax imposed on pre-warmed food in the budget
The two stories when taken together illustrate the dilemmas facing political leaders when attempting to ward off adverse publicity.
The pasty story begun with questioning of the chancellor George Osborne about his proposal in the budget to add tax to takeaway preheated foods. This issue was personalized by a question at a Parliamentary committee hearing. It challenged the feasibility of imposing VAT on a cooked product according to its temperature ‘relative to ambient’ [i.e. whether it had cooled down]. But it also implied that he was too posh to understand popular eating habits and therefor to help run the country. This continues the opposition attack about the Prime Minister and Chancellor being out of touch with the needs of public.
Mr Osborne stepped cautiously between dismissing the question as a joke, and trying to deal with its potential for political damage. But a day later [March 28th 2012] the Prime Minister David Cameron made a calculated effort to address the issue. He was, he noted, an enthusiastic consumer of such snacks. But with the ad-man’s instinct for vivid speech, he created a narrative in which he fondly remembered his last such pasty. Unfortunately for him and his advisors, the background research had managed to identify a company location that had gone bust at the time of the alleged pasty-snacking. The story and inevitable clichéd headlines (such as mine) took off.
How not to be a leader. In England, the concept of inept leadership is captured in the classic TV series Dad’s Army. The bungling officer Captain Mainwaring is mimicked by the even more gloriously inept Corporal Jones who spreads panic in each episode accompanied by his catch-phrase ‘don’t panic’.
Enter Corporal Maude
Francis Maude for the Government addressed the tanker strike’s consequences but seems to have triggered panic buying at the pumps.
The Corporal Jones theme was widely deployed in the media, with Francis Maude lampooned as Corporal Jones. Here’s BBC correspondent Nick Robinson:
Ministers risk looking like Corporal Jones in TV’s Dad’s Army as their insistence that there is no need to panic about the possibility of an impending strike by tanker drivers looks like, well, panic.
It’s clear that Francis Maude went more than a little off-piste when he suggested motorists might consider filling up a “jerry can” and putting it in the garage, as well as filling up their tank.
However, it’s also clear that the government has had a strategy since the weekend – and well before the Tory funding allegations emerged – of encouraging stories which might persuade car drivers to stock up with petrol.
Tory folklore recalls that one reason Mrs Thatcher defeated the miners’ strikes of 1984 was because she had made contingency plans and built up coal stocks outside the mines.
The news on Friday [30th April 2012] was that the proposed strike had been postponed. However, panic at the pumps continued into Saturday, with reports of bizarre and dangerous attempts to obtain and store petrol. An unsurprising leadership lesson: it is much easier to start a public panic than end one.